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COVID-19 Harming Mental Health Directly and Indirectly

July 02, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the mental health of patients hospitalized with the virus, the healthcare workers treating them, people with preexisting psychiatric issues, and the general public at large. Researchers published the findings, from a systematic review of current COVID-19 evidence, in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

“It is known from the previous SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003, also called the bird flu, that mental health was affected among patients who survived the disease and among the healthcare professionals treating the patients,” said coauthor Michael Eriksen Benros, MD, PhD, a professor at the University of Copenhagen and the Mental Health Centre Copenhagen, Denmark. “Our recently published article systematically reviews current knowledge on symptoms among healthcare professionals and patients, and the same appears to be the case for the COVID-19 pandemic.”

First author and PhD student Nina Vindegaard Sørensen, along with Dr. Eriksen Benros, reviewed 43 studies that looked at psychiatric symptoms and morbidities associated with COVID-19. Two studies focused on the mental health symptoms of patients with confirmed COVID-19 infection, and 41 studies evaluated the indirect effect of the pandemic on people with preexisting mental health disorders (2), on healthcare providers (20), and on the population at a whole (19).

According to the review, patients who survived severe COVID-19 symptoms exhibited high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms and significantly increased depressive symptoms after hospitalization.

Strengthening Our Well-Being During COVID-19

“The numerous reports of decreased sense of smell and taste during a COVID-19 infection might indicate an effect on the nervous system. It is therefore worrying that mental symptoms have been detected during and immediately after the infection,” said Dr. Eriksen Benros. “One contributing factor might be that the infection has affected the brain and caused the symptoms, either directly or through the induced immune response.”

Among people with preexisting psychiatric disorders, studies suggested a worsening of symptoms. Healthcare workers reported heightened levels of anxiety, depression, psychological distress, and poor sleep quality. Meanwhile, the general public experienced a drop in psychological well-being and an increase in anxiety and depression, according to the review.

Researchers pointed out that studies in the review varied in quality and that most were from Asia and may not be transferable to other contexts.

“We need more high-quality studies to make any final conclusions about a link between mental symptoms and COVID-19,” Vindegaard Sørensen said. “However, our results indicate that COVID-19 may have an impact on the brain of those infected, and that there are derived effects of the pandemic on the mental health among both healthcare professionals and the population.”

—Jolynn Tumolo

References 

Vindegaard N, Eriksen Benros M. COVID-19 pandemic and mental health consequences: systematic review of the current evidence. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2020 May 30;[Epub ahead of print].

COVID-19 may have consequences for mental health [press release]. Copenhagen, Denmark: University of Copenhagen; June 18, 2020.

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